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International Socialist Review Issue 45,
January–February 2006


The first Russian Revolution

Peter Glatter, ed.
The Russian Revolution of 1905: Change Through Struggle
Revolutionary History, Volume 9, No. 1, 2005, $23


THE 1905 Russian Revolution marked a series of firsts, writes Pete Glatter in the introduction to this fascinating special issue of the journal Revolutionary History. It was the first time workers organized councils or soviets, it was the first time the mass strike was used as a weapon of class struggle, and it was the first time that ordinary people stopped a war.

Given such groundbreaking events, one might reasonably expect a wide variety of useful studies on the centenary of the 1905 Revolution. Yet aside from Leon Trotsky’s 1905, Rosa Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike, and Abraham Ascher’s The Revolution of 1905 there is surprisingly little for socialists to read. One collection of essays, The Russian Revolution of 1905: Centenary Perspectives, illustrates the academic contempt for the revolutionary movement. Anna Geifman, for example, claims that though “not every Russian radical was mentally unbalanced” most radicals were emotionally crippled by the loss of old forms of collectivity, including Leon Trotsky!

Glatter’s refreshing approach is one that is openly sympathetic to the revolutionary movement. The Russian Revolution of 1905: Change Through Struggle fills a huge void in our understanding of 1905. This is not a dry academic account but a study written, edited, and translated by a socialist who wants to draw lessons from the past in order to understand the dynamic of revolutionary change today.

What makes this such an exhilarating read is its emphasis on the recollections and documents written by those actively involved in 1905, in order “to give voice to that revolution.” Almost all of these Russian sources appear here in English for the first time. Among the dozens of gems are the blow-by-blow description of the fierce battle at the Obukhov plant in St. Petersburg in 1901 that was a turning point in Russian working-class history, the rare and brilliant eyewitness account of the Potemkin mutiny, and the recollections of the inner workings of the St. Petersburg Soviet by Dmitry Sverchkov, one of the soviet’s forgotten leaders. Other vivid accounts of the January 9 “Bloody Sunday” massacre of over a thousand peaceful protesters show how workers’ illusions in a benevolent tsar were quickly shattered and led to protests and strikes throughout the empire.

But Change Through Struggle is much more than a collection of documents. By emphasizing three related processes in the development of the movement, Glatter offers a clear outline of the dialectic of the 1905 Revolution. First, he shows how the rising tide of struggle repeatedly broke down barriers and gave workers new confidence as they learned through conflict. Second, he emphasizes the uneven development of different sections of the working class during the course of the revolution. Third, he illustrates how socialist parties related to (or failed to relate) to quickly changing events.

One of the many myths shattered here is the notion that Russian women workers were irredeemably “backward” and apolitical—a perception that many contemporary male social democrats unfortunately believe, at least to begin with. Indeed, there were more women actively involved in Father Gapon’s Assembly of Russian Factory and Plant Workers than men in all the socialist organizations in St. Petersburg combined. As one Bolshevik whose writings appear in the collection admitted, “The fact that women took part in the branches on the biggest possible scale—something that did not happen in our party organization—was of tremendous importance.” In the aftermath of the Bloody Sunday massacre that triggered the 1905 revolt, it was the women of St. Petersburg who shamed and abused those soldiers who had fired on their brothers and sisters. In the summer of 1905, it was the largely women textile workers of Ivanovo-Voznesensk who organized what was at the time the longest strike in Russian history. And it was the radicalization of women textile workers that played a crucial role in the Moscow December uprising.

Glatter also proves beyond doubt that the anti-Semitic pogroms that took place in the wake of Tsar Nicholas’s October manifesto (that disingenuously promised reforms) only happened because of the complicity of government officials. In Odessa alone over 500 Jews were slaughtered. Yet even amid the horror there were moments of inspiration, such as the sailors’ union that armed and patrolled the harbor to protect Jewish property. In St. Petersburg, as one government memo acknowledged, no pogrom took place thanks exclusively to the counter-measures taken by the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, which organized armed militias.

Although the revolution was defeated, this work shows that it was not a foregone conclusion. Socialists made lots of mistakes in 1905, but that was because it was their first real chance to intervene in an open mass movement. They had to learn as they went along, like everyone else. The big difference between the two main socialist organizations of the time, the Bolsheviks and the more moderate Mensheviks, was that the Bolsheviks ultimately learned from their mistakes while the Mensheviks made a virtue of them. For the Mensheviks, defeat proved that the workers should not take the lead in the struggle against tsarism. For the Bolsheviks, 1905 was a near-miss which showed that the workers could lead the way to victory. The Bolsheviks were sharply self-critical—they were often too narrow, too sectarian, too conservative—but they came to recognize that the creative impetus of the mass workers’ movement showed how these faults could be overcome. According to V.I. Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, the fact that the struggle developed from a strike to an uprising “over the heads of the organizations” was “the greatest historic gain the Russian revolution achieved.” It was not that organizations were not needed. It was that the pressure of mass action could overcome their conservatism.

The Russian Revolution of 1905: Change Through Struggle was written for a new age of mass movements that have important echoes of 1905—anticapitalist, antiwar, or, as in Bolivia, semi-insurrectionary. The core chapters that tell the story of the revolution are complemented by one by Mark Thomas on Poland, with first-time translations of Rosa Luxemburg, and another by Mike Haynes on the much-neglected but fascinating strike statistics. These offer many invaluable insights for understanding the quickly changing tempo of revolution.

Kevin Murphy is the author of Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory, reviewed in this issue.
Revolutionary History can be ordered online at

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